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Achieving global sustainability starts in Africa

‘Only about 1% of the world’s recycled metals comes from the African continent,’ says Raymond Onovwigun, ceo of Romco Metals. His company is hoping to boost that figure with a new recycling plant in Ghana and he has ambitious plans for expansion.

This company profile is featured in our latest issue >>

Every quarter, Romco Metals recycles more than 5 000 tonnes of non-ferrous scrap, mostly aluminium and copper, shipping it around the world to well-known companies including major automotive manufacturers, and American metals giant Alcoa. The company is headquartered in London and its sites in Ghana and Nigeria have a processing capacity of approximately 1 500 tonnes per month. Ceo Raymond Onovwigun proudly states that one site can process the equivalent of 34 Olympic size swimming pools full of scrap annually.

Ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in November, the UK-based entrepreneur is eager to point out that the biggest gap in sustainable infrastructure is the lack of a circular economy in Africa. While Africa represents a fifth of the world’s population, its recycling industry is in its infancy.

‘But we have solutions,’ Onovwigun says with great enthusiasm. ‘That’s why we’re expanding our recycling activities throughout Africa in those areas where it’s needed most. In the process of doing so, we’re adding hundreds of jobs.’

Seeing his ideas come to fruition after seven years of planning and investing is incredibly rewarding. ‘Being able to support hundreds of people further highlights that milestone. We’re not just a recycling enterprise. We’re a social enterprise.’

Recycling powerhouse

By adopting an active approach, Onovwigun believes Africa can become a recycling powerhouse. The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating: Romco increased its revenue by over 900% during the pandemic, has set up a trade hub in Dubai, and has future plans for eco-initiatives Africa (like plastic waste clean-up expeditions) is projected to be home to almost two billion people by 2040.

‘If we want to realise our climate goals, we have to significantly increase our recycling capacity,’ Onovwigun insists. ‘That’s the most effective way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.’ It makes perfect sense to capitalise on the abundant presence of critical metals lying in dusty drawers, garages and landfills.

According to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the 55 million tonnes of waste generated in South Africa per annum is worth almost R 26 billion (EUR 1.5 billion) per year. Considering Nigeria’s population generates some 32 million tonnes (of which 2.5 million tonnes are plastic), the pay-off could be enormous. The entrepreneur envisions sustainability taking a big leap forward in developing countries.

He cites international efforts to industrialise Africa, with more people wanting to invest in extracting resources from the ‘urban mine’ rather than stripping the earth of materials. (Ghana is the leading nation in Africa for gold mining, which is a 150 tonnes a year business. Other popular mined materials include bauxite, manganese and silver.)

From plumbing to scrapping

For Onovwigun, recycling isn’t just about profit. ‘It’s a good business model; but there’s not just a capitalist driver. The alternative makes no sense.’ His story is certainly a unique one. He set up his first recycling plant in Nigeria in 2015 but before that he was a plumber in the UK, running a very successful company. ‘It’s a sector that generates a lot of waste; I gradually got a glimpse of the end-of-life market, the potential for scrap processing,’ he recalls.

‘I kind of bolted that service onto the existing company, although I felt my focus shifted more and more towards the scrap part of it. Visiting clients, I saw there was so much material available for processing. Just because it couldn’t be repaired, it didn’t mean it was worthless. I thought this business model was fascinating and started reading and learning what I could about recycling.’

Ultimately, Onovwigun realised he wanted to be on the different end of the value chain. He switched careers, sold his business, and used the money he had saved to establish a recycling firm. He hasn’t looked back since. Romco has grown into a multinational employing more than 300 people in three countries. Better still, the recycling company earned a record EUR 4.9 million in Q1 2021, which is 718% up on Q1 2020. ‘We were able to process 487% more metals in the first quarter of the year,’ Onovwigun reports.

Imagining where his company and the African recycling sector as a whole is going, he reflects: ‘Progress is only possible through bold investments.’ The plan is very clear: seven recycling plants in operation by 2026. That means five more facilities within five years.

City never sleeps

The recycler, who describes himself as an ambitious yet level-headed guy, realises that durable business growth is only possible with a practical, systematic mindset. He sees much unexplored potential waiting in Africa. ‘When I left university, I knew that the continent has various developing markets with some really booming economies,’ Onovwigun states. This is especially true for Nigeria, from where his parents emigrated to the UK in the 1970s.

Onovwigun was born and raised in London. ‘I remember visiting Lagos for the first time back in 2014 when I was still trying to set up my business. It’s the largest city in the country, and one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. Seeing all the hustle and bustle, the big city life, with my own eyes made me realise we have an entirely wrong perception of life in Africa.’

Nigeria has a gross domestic product of almost US$ 450 billion – the highest on the continent. ‘Places like Lagos – a city that never sleeps – are much like the ones we have in the UK; alive with activity and commerce. It’s not all rural settlements, landfills and children with sad eyes like we see on television. What we think we know is only a small fraction of what Africa has to offer. It’s a one-sided image that needs to be updated,’ he argues. ‘Almost as soon as I got off the airplane I thought to myself; this is the place I can grow my business and have an immediate global impact.’

Onovwigun insists Romco Metals is ready to take recycling to the next level by helping to advance the formal sector. ‘At the moment, there are only about 50 recycling plants in Africa, whereas we have over 250 in Europe, easily.’ At this rate, the statistics (roughly 13% of materials are recycled in Nigeria) won’t see any significant improvement any time soon. ‘Again, the numbers don’t make any sense if we look at the continent’s high population and mining figures. We’re talking about a very a-symmetrical picture and I want to do my best to fix that.’

Personal connection

The 31-year-old remembers all too well where his venture began. ‘The journey into Africa started at a familiar location,’ he laughs. ‘In my auntie’s backyard, where I built a small shed.’ The spin-off operation barely covered a quarter of an acre. Fast forward to now and Romco Metals’ facilities span eight acres with activities in Ghana having recently been expanded to a site in the neighbouring Burkino Faso.

When asked where he spends most of his time, Onovwigun chuckles. ‘I travel a lot,’ he replies. ‘I’m abroad two weeks at a time, if not longer, at regular intervals. Sometimes I have to check where I am when I wake up,’ he jokes. ‘But, you know, it’s how I get things done. That’s the main thing. Some ceos have other people run their business but I want to know what is going on at all my facilities – not just the ones close to home.’ He wants to know his team personally and check that everything is running smoothly.

‘I don’t like wasting time. I have to keep busy. It’s how I maintain the connection to what I do; I’ve got to feel it.’ In fact, Onovwigun only got back from his honeymoon the day before a scheduled zoom call with Recycling International. ‘I’ve been back in the UK a whole two months now,’ he adds.

Onovwigun celebrates opening the new Romco Metals plant in Ghana in February.

With the pandemic more under control and vaccines being rolled out across the globe, he is eager to resume his business trips, undaunted by the shadow of coronavirus mutations headlining the news. ‘I don’t want to jinx it: I was lucky enough not to get sick in the last year-and-a-half.’ As fate would have it, he got malaria and typhoid during a company visit in 2016. ‘That was a gruelling experience; I was in hospital for over two weeks trying to recover. Trust me, I’ll never again underestimate how important your health is. It’s why we enforced strict rules early on during the pandemic to keep our crew safe.’ And he adds: ‘I’m grateful I don’t get knocked down easily.’

A bold, new standard Onovwigun’s family couldn’t have guessed that the enterprise would pick up speed so quickly. ‘We’re aiming at getting a revenue of close to US$ 30 million this year. Perhaps 50 million. By next year, I’m hoping to realise a revenue between US$ 80 million and US$ 100 million. All in all, I’d say we’ve become a reasonably-sized player in Africa and in the general recycling market.’

Meanwhile, the strong demand for both recycled copper and aluminium in the electronics and automotive market is sure to cement future growth. ‘Modern vehicles are getting more lightweight, so aluminium is becoming more important. And e-mobility has been notably pushing new car sales.’ Based on these trends, the role of recyclers will be more prominent – especially with increased awareness about resource scarcity and pollution due to mining/producing parts made from virgin materials. ‘Our industry can really make a difference,’ Onovwigun states.

It’s clear his confidence is based on his passion for the industry and seeing the bigger picture. ‘I want Romco to be at the forefront of recycling in Africa, showing other players how it’s done.’ Hopefully, more recyclers will join the game and thus collectively raise the standard of waste management. That way, the circular economy may become the new standard.

This company profile is featured in our latest issue >>

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